Scores on the doors are a mixed blessing – especially if you read them after you have eaten at the place concerned.
I’m talking about the hygiene rating dished out by Food Standards Agency inspectors of eating establishments.
The only thing ‘established’ by a zero or a one rating is you really wouldn’t want to eat there. Five is tops. Aim for a four or a five for peace of mind.
That said one of my regular pilgrimage points in Liverpool has been marred by a ‘one’ rating.
My gut feeling was entirely wrong about the place. I’m not a fussy eater but the only bacteria I expect to find is the friendly pro-biotic sort.
I used to review restaurants for The Gazette – and for a certain food guide which swears reviewers to a Mafia-like code of secrecy … unless you really don’t want to end up with anything in your mouth, including a fish.
I suspect the secrecy exists because there are so many impositions over where to eat, what to eat, and how little you can claim back. Other than the perceived kudos there’s nothing in it, other than indigestion and a credit card deficit. I think I lasted two editions before the ‘one glass of wine’ edict drove me away.
It was simpler on the paper. I specialised, more by accident than design, in reviewing places nobody else wanted or could be bothered to review. It got a bit territorial. No-go borders were patrolled by reviewers who lived within walking distance of restaurants on their ‘patch’.
This was great if you lived in Lytham but scant pickings for me in Norbreck. It was the reviewer’s equivalent of a child declaring “I’ve licked it” of a cake. Or a cat scent-marking its turf. Mind you, I scent-marked my weekly wine column for years until a much bigger kitty arrived in the form of the Press Association. My nine lives – and one liver – ran out at then.
As with a succession of passed over (by others) press trips to second rate holiday camps, one star B&Bs or stately homes for octogenarians , the leftovers often turned out to be great. I ate at some fantastic places ignored because they were either out in the sticks so you had to drive to reach them – and another reviewer fancied a drink or five with dinner – or because the restaurateur might recognise a higher profile foodie.
Any decidedly dodgy joints were purged from the ‘dine out’ rota faster than I could grab a Gaviscon, for fear of other reviewers suffering a similar fate.
These days you can play it safe by checking scores on the doors. The Gazette this week revealed the zeros racked up by the Food Standards Agency – including for a hotel which closed after trying to fine guests for leaving bad reviews online.
Roughly half of the town’s 1,570 eating places – some 772 – win top marks and 94 per cent are rated satisfactory or better. Yes, we could do better but it’s not that bad. And it beats my rule of thumb. I used to check whether the curtains looked tatty, extractor fans were oozing slime, or bins were overflowing.
A trip to the loo was invariably my first call – not of nature but to glean whether it was clean.
‘Satisfactory’ wouldn’t wash with me. It had to be good – and even then it would still be touch and go on the Bombay Mix…